Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Questions about Tronti

One of the questions I have about Tronti, and operaismo in general, is to what extent his critiques are applicable today. He is writing out of a very specific moment in capitalism—the so-called “golden age” of the post-war boom, with its combination of developmentalist economics in the third world, the Keynesian compromise with labor in the imperial core, Fordism, and centralized, comparatively inflexible corporate structures. To what extent does “social capital” as he conceives it still exist? And what happens when “social capital” turns into Negri’s “real subsumption” and “biopolitics” under condition that are, arguably, quite different?

The shift to what David Harvey calls “flexible accumulation” that occurs in the 70s—with increasingly decentralized firms, liberalization of the economies of the periphery and volatilization of capital movement in general, the growth of the service sector, the mechanization of agriculture—can’t really be seen as replacing the tenets of the ‘45-73 period, so much as transforming them. For instance, the state continues to intervene in, legislate and administer production, and in the US, though the spending is not re-circulated to the working-class, the state still runs a huge deficit on corporate giveaways, subsidies and, of course, armaments and colonial adventures. Then as now, many industries are dominated by monopolies. The idea of neo-liberalism as anti-state is, of course, a fiction. There is, now, simply (or rather, complexly) a different relationship between state and capital.

But still, it’s unclear that, for instance, trade-union activism of the modest sort that seeks a larger share of the surpluses is today, as it was in Tronti’s time, a force that contributes to development. Given the conditions of stagnation within the capitalist economy, and given the fact many manufacturing sectors seem mechanized to such a degree that additional profits are very difficult to secure, it might be the case that unions are actually a far larger threat to capital today than they were 50 years ago. Hence, for the last 25-30 years the US and British governments (among others) treat with labor in increasingly brutal and intractable ways. (In The Shock Doctrine –which is a truly excellent book, a harrowing map of the last 30 years of berserker capitalism—Naomi Klein uses Reagan’s response to the air traffic controllers and Thatcher’s to the coal miners to mark a shift). Further, as a friend pointed out to me recently, the service sector admits of no mechanization—there, the ratio between profits and wages can’t really be improved through machinery or technology. Full unionization of that area—a difficult accomplishment, given all of contingent labor that’s used—could be devastating, since, it seems (and correct me if I’m wrong) the only recourse that capital has there is “absolute surplus value”—lengthening of the working day, lowering of the wage, lowering of the standards of living, etc. And this, of course, threatens a crisis of overproduction of the sort we’re facing right now. All fictive capitals come to an end. Farewell to an idea.

*

What I’m worrying over is the oft-repeated claim that critiques of administered life, of the conformist culture of 50s and 60s capital, of the “augmented survival” that Debord describes, and the society of command in Tronti, (critiques, in other words, of the extension of the state across wide swaths of the, umm, welt) actually play into the hands of neoliberal crusaders in the 70s, 80s and 90s, that the critique of augmented survival for the most privileged sectors of the working class enables a shift to “mere” survival. There is some truth to this, although I think the truth has more to do with perversions and distortions in the implementation of ideas that were, and remain, radical, but that can end up—this is the case with a good deal of post-structuralism—as fundamentally liberal or even libertarian in nature.

“Social capital” might in its transformation end up as something like Debord’s “diffuse spectacle,” a form of rule that proceeds less by direct command and administration but by a tacit performance on the part of society, in order not only to reproduce the existing relations of production but to expand what is deemed socially necessary labor time. Spectacle works on use-value. I think both of these functions fit with Foucault’s definition of biopolitics—the creation of desires (History of Sexuality, Vol I), and the management of populations (The Birth of Biopolitics).

The shift, then, seems to do with an adversion to a kind of calculated chaos—a calculated permissiveness that allows the formation of areas of self-governance, autonomy, agitation—in order to allow capital to expand. The State, in certain sectors, retreats only to return. . . Or the capital “S” State turns into the little “s” state in order to permit the kind of flexibility and leverage that capital needs in this age. . .This seems to be characteristic of things in the imperial core.

At the same time, however, the need for new capital markets requires increasingly brutal and direct legislative or military intervention in the periphery—primitive accumulation by force and fiat. Naomi Klein’s book documents the infernal career of such slash-and-burn techniques, whether they result from the exploitation of “naturally” arisen crises or the manufacture of crises.

Tronti suggests—and this is a point made very explicitly in Harry Cleaver’s excellent Reading Capital Politically—that all crises are either the result of working-class militancy or, relatedly, an attempt by the ruling class to control the working-class through the political implementation of economic control (all economics is politics, for Cleaver). I’m not sure I buy this %100. Or I’m not sure—as an empirical claim—that it’s a meaningful distinction. Of course, I want this to be true. I think that—in terms subjectivity—this is probably the best way to look at things, in line with, say, Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” I also think it bears out if one looks at the crises of the 70s and 80s, and those direct interventions that Klein so expertly indexes. It’s certainly true, for instance, of price gouging by commodities speculators currently, and it’s certainly true that the subprime housing scandal was a way of, in a sense, getting, by a backdoor means, givebacks from the working class (by putting many people in deep debt). But there also could be a good deal to learn by looking at such things as inter-capital competition. I don’t think doing so renders the working-class entirely passive.

Many of my readers—used to me talking about poetry—probably don’t care about any of this, and have probably already stopped reading paragraphs ago. But for those who do, what do you think?

12 comments:

Laura Carter said...

"Or the capital "S" State turns into the little "s" state in order to permit the kind of flexibility and leverage that capital needs in this age. . .This seems to be characteristic of things in the imperial core."

I would like to know more about this, kind of wish you'd fill in the ellipsis a little? I think this is a good insight and a critical pivot in your discussion, but could you say a bit more?

best,

Laura

jane said...

I think several things, but I'll keep it brief.

This is fascinating and useful to me. There are two passages I'm unsure about, for different reasons. The first is this: "What I’m worrying over is the oft-repeated claim that critiques of administered life, of the conformist culture of 50s and 60s capital, of the “augmented survival” that Debord describes, and the society of command in Tronti, (critiques, in other words, of the extension of the state across wide swaths of the, umm, welt) actually play into the hands of neoliberal crusaders in the 70s, 80s and 90s, that the critique of augmented survival for the most privileged sectors of the working class enables a shift to “mere” survival." I certainly know the writings to which you refer, but I'm sure I follow your summarizing of them — would it be possible for you to clarify at some point?

And the second is this: "It’s certainly true, for instance, of price gouging by commodities speculators currently, and it’s certainly true that the subprime housing scandal was a way of, in a sense, getting, by a backdoor means, givebacks from the working class (by putting many people in deep debt)."

I hope it's not merely semantic to pause over this phrasing. I worry that "price gouging by commodities speculators" has no actual referent in the economy, since "price gouging" describes practices regarding necessities under informal or formal monopoly control. Speculation in its current form can have the effect of raising prices, which is somewhat different. But also, I think it's important to recognize the core problem of contemporary speculation, which is not the skewing of current prices (on which they have considerably less effect than certain populist rhetorics suggest) but rather in the realm of converting into capital value from labor which lies in the future or in the periphery. In this regard it's not exactly that subprime loans functioned as "backdoor givebacks by the working class" — though that's not wrong. I think those loans might be more usefully formulated as a strategy for shifting the debt-burden of borrowings against future value-production directly onto the working class, rather than mediating it through mutual and hedge funds and similar instruments.

Which is to say, I guess, that subprime loans turn out to be ways of getting the working class to be speculators — against their own and their children's future labor — which should complicate our account of "speculators." One of the implications of financialization is in fact that we are all speculators, with or without our compliance. So perhaps we gain from speaking about "speculation" more than some villainous category of "speculators."

Not that I think George Soros is cool.

Jasper Bernes said...

Laura,

I don't know. I wish I could phrase it better myself. I'm still trying to think through it all. I guess it's the difference between the State proper and what Althusser terms the ISAs; or, better, the difference between the State and those ISA's that we might more easily identify as appanages of the state and those that seem to belong to the "public." I’m thinking of a shift, at least in the U.S., from direct to indirect forms of control—a different admixture of biopolitics and anatomo-politics, if you will, with the former prevailing. I'm sure these things have always existed in some sort of relation thoughout capitalism, with biopolitics as it is presently understood in some sort of germinal form; but there's a difference in degree and quality between the pre- and post-'73 period. Or so it seems to me now.

Jasper Bernes said...

Jane,

I may not have a better paraphrase. As you can probably surmise, it's partly a response to CR's post
here
: “We read these earlier theorists who had, no doubt, noble intentions, as cringe inwardly, knowing that we smell in their works an ideology better suited to bourgeois gentrification and tower demolition than, you know, the provision of rooves and running water, walls and doors, simple, unglamourous things that just every single one of us are very happy to have.”

CR is a bit more judicious than my summary (which is a why I didn’t reference him directly) but I still don’t think he’s quite right. I think Perry Anderson makes a similar point in The Origins of Postmodernity—a book that’s excellent in many ways. But Anderson can’t see how the things he rightly detests in pomo and its epigones devolve upon a distortion of emancipatory movements which were not at all a distraction from the class struggle, but rather an integral part of it. Jameson is better (more dialectical) in “Periodizing the 60s,” but he gets the relationship between the new social movements and class precisely backwards.

Virno says something a bit different in The Grammar of the Multitude, suggesting that the Italian workers' demands for autonomy were met, instead, with the precarity/contingency of post-Fordist labor, a kind of burlesque of the freedom that a post-capitalist society might provide: in other words, "the communism of capital." This doesn’t rule out a critique of earlier left ideology as being too much focused on unfreedom and too little on immiseration, or ignorant, for instance, of relations between core and periphery, but it doesn’t make such critiques a matter of course either, and it shifts some responsibility away from the original emancipatory moment and toward the response by capital and the State.

I’ll defer to your superior knowledge on the economics stuff. I’ve read some pretty convincing articles in MR about the role of speculation—among other things—in driving up prices, but I’m an amateur in such things, and not even a very competent amateur at that. At some point, I’ll have to get you to point me in the direction of whatever you think might set me straight here. Obviously there are lots of factors involved—and the companies like Cargill that hold a quasi-monopoly on food production are part of it too. My point, though, is that conditions can be and are exploited by capital to its own advantage. Given the difference in inflation between certain goods, some people will make lots of money while the value of the wage falls. It’s essentially a transfer, no?. Too often, these things—inflation, etc.—are treated as a disaster for capital. I think it’s only a disaster for certain sectors; it’s a windfall for others. Whether speculators are responsible for the price surge or merely getting in on the action might not be that important. Does that make sense?

With regard to the other point, I think you just phrase what I wanted to say better than I did. It seems that making section of the working class into speculators—speculators that are bound to lose, thus more like tourists in Vegas—is the same thing as a giveback, since the latter is by definition a claim on future wages. But it’s also, I think, a claim to past wages, since the hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth that has been transferred comes, to a large degree, from savings—often the savings of multiple generations, whole families, which have completely wiped out. Again, it seems likely—and maybe I’m wrong—that lots of the hedge funds will emerge from the crisis rather flush, once the assets have been seized and redistributed and the bailouts paid for by our taxes. It’s not a bad day for all of the lenders involved, right?

I take your point about speculators/speculation. It’s actually one of my few critiques of the Klein book—that it endorses a kind of bad-actor view of capitalism. This seems a risk with the operaismo and post-operaismo stuff, too, even if the specific actors are rarely named. Then again, there are bad-actors; they just don’t tell the whole story.

Laura Carter said...

Jasper, Jane, etc.:

Where can I read more about this magic transition? I find this interesting because I did read The Long Twentieth Century and was taken aback by how much has changed since 1973. But how can we, as poets, imagine ourselves out of this space? Is the space sutured closed (I was born in 1976, I s'pose I should say)? Any dialectically interesting artistic renderings of this opposition?

I'm not quite smart enough about economics to be more than little help, but I am curious as to whether there's a cultural study that isn't delimited to a specific year or years or even decades that discusses the 'whole hog' (as they say) of this transition. I like sweeping surveys. I would like to know more.

best,

Laura

P.S. I have read Jameson and Anderson and find both useful, but neither marries economics to culture quite enough for me to get the whole picture. Perhaps in wanting to get the whole picture in one book, I am merely seeking an authority to corroborate what I ought to be seeking in the fragments of texts that are already available?

Laura Carter said...

Last note from me here:

I googled "they tried to interpellate me," thinking I might flarf or something, and this is what I got: http://www.michaelberube.com/index.php/weblog/theory_tuesday_iv/. It proves useful....

Jasper Bernes said...

Laura,

Well, The Shock Doctrine is a really excellent book. It doesn't get into the economic complexities, let alone the cultural ramifications. For that, I think David Harvey's excellent --as is Arrighi. The Condition of Postmodernity, A Brief History of Neoliberalism and Spaces of Global Capitalism all treat this extensively. Also, Robert Brenner's The Economics of Global Turbulence.

For a more theoretical-philosphical account, I think Virno's A Grammar of the Multitude is really provocative. So are the essays in Negri's Books for Burning and Revolution Retrieved.

OK, when you've read all that, come back and tell me what you think. Knowing you, you'll read it all in three days!

Jane, any other recs?

jane said...

Jasper, yes, I think we're trying to articulate the same point — you get at it well with "it’s also, I think, a claim to past wages, since the hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth that has been transferred comes, to a large degree, from savings—often the savings of multiple generations, whole families, which have completely wiped out." That's what I mean about engendering speculation by the working class without the mediation of mutual funds, which after all mostly require the payee to have a job, and a job of a certain kind. So you can get workers to join the middle class, or you can get the middle class to join workers — make workers "owners" without any of the advantages of ownership. And their buy-in, in this case, is both the the risk of whatever property they already have to hand, and the blood-debt of future labor. Rumpelstiltskin, but without the possibility of saying his name (what we used to call "declaring bankruptcy").

A structural way to think about the thing you describe is as the real subsumption of both future and past labor. Those "savings" and any possible collateral are objectifications of labor which in their particular forms have been removed from circulation, become dead to capital; must there be a way to make them dance again, just as the promise of future labor has been taught to do the Madison?

Though there's part of me that wonders if it isn't also an economic device for shifting capital's necessary surplus money (to account for market contractions, price changes, etc) so that it's held in the value of property rather than in bank/currency reserves. This allows capital to run closer to margins, to have less reserves, with the understanding that if the economy tightens, the necessary reserves can be recovered from foreclosures (and eventually from taxpayers). In effect, subprime borrowers become a kind of bank, and the "credit crunch" is like a bank run in the funhouse mirror, where banks clamor to remove their savings from individuals. So I wonder if some version of the subprime loan isn't necessary for every declining economic empire to extend its belle epoque just a bit. This is an intuition; I'm no economist.

Laura, I'm not sure I would add much to Jasper's list of books. For one thing I am not quite certain what the whole hog would be. If Jameson and Harvey aren't enough, we'd better write it ourselves. But I would recommend some specific articles, Laura, that you may have already read: Arrighi's "Toward a Theory of Capitalist Crisis," Jameson's "Culture & Finance Capital." I think there's something really useful about the idea of the "transitional society" in E. Mandel's Ten Theses (1973), which doesn't take up the specific discussion of financialization or of culture, but nonetheless understands the political situation of it insightfully. From the perspective of art, Lucy Lippard's book Six Years is pivotal. For understanding the economic technologies, MacKenzie's An Engine Not A Camera was useful to me.

But yes, you've described the book that wants to be written.

brian salchert said...

Much more is on my mind because of
this discussion, but for now:

Someone needs to put together
an anthology of all the
pertinent fragments.

Peli Grietzer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peli Grietzer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grumpy Cat said...

Hey all
I think what is really crucial in Negri's (and maybe Virno's)explanation in the transformation of capitalism due to the struggles of the 1960s and 70s, is the idea that labour radical changed itself; thus capital had to deploy new forms of work premised on labour's self-reinvention.

rebel love
Dave